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Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. If contributions are kept brief, perhaps a greater number of hon. Members will be successful in catching my eye.

5.53 pm

Colin Burgon (Elmet): I hope that my brief contribution will also be effective and continue the non-partisan approach set by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes).

It is necessary to retain a perspective about truancy and discipline in school. The overwhelming majority of kids in our schools are well behaved and do not truant, and the overwhelming majority of teachers do a highly effective job. As an ex-teacher of 16 years' standing, I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who told us that an irate parent had hit him over the head with an umbrella. I taught just down the road, and umbrellas were a luxury.

It is obvious to anyone with any awareness that truancy is a problem for society. The figures have been mentioned, but they are worth repeating. It is deeply worrying that some 50,000 young people in England alone deliberately truant from school every day. Official figures show that 40 per cent. of street crime, 25 per cent. of burglaries, 20 per cent. of criminal damage and 30 per cent. of car thefts are carried out by 10 to 16-year-olds during school hours. Those figures are disturbing. We must all acknowledge that something needs to be done to change that and the attitudes that go with it.

In my distant, although I hope not too dim, past as a schoolboy on the Gipton estate in east Leeds, to which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough referred, kids who legged it from school kept a low profile to avoid both their parents and the board man. What disturbs me so much is that today young people who truant—I know that they are a tiny minority—feel no need to keep a low profile. Indeed, they flaunt their behaviour. Worst of all, in many cases the truanting is done with the support of adults who masquerade as parents.

When we talk about truancy, we must acknowledge that we must vigorously address the depressing cycle of underachievement, apathy and the almost inevitable slide into antisocial behaviour and crime—a cycle that will be stubbornly perpetuated if we do not attempt to get to grips with the problem. That is why I welcome the Government's recently announced plans to base uniformed police officers in up to 400 schools in England's worst crime hotspots as part of their £90 million crackdown on truancy.

Geraint Davies: My hon. Friend may be interested to know that recent research discloses that the majority of

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the crimes committed by such youths on other youths take place outside the school gates after school. Children who have been excluded or who are truanting intimidate children when they leave school. They meet up with their mates, press drugs on them and take mobile phones. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a case to be made for having police at the school gate when schools break up to ensure that the perpetrators are caught and to prevent such crimes from being committed?

Colin Burgon: I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I was going to cover that later in my contribution.

I also welcome the response of John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, to the Government's support for schools in their attempts to combat truancy. He said:

Parents are key to the problem. Unfortunately, the role of parents is not mentioned in the Opposition motion, and that is one of its great weaknesses.

Similar support was given to the Government's measures by Steve Pilkington, from the Association of Chief Police Officers. He said:

I am pleased that the Select Committee on Education and Skills discussed that problem. It called for a review of the penalties faced by parents of truanting children who assist in letting 6 million days of education go to waste every year. No one, whether it be the Government, schools, teachers, parents or taxpayers, can condone that appalling statistic and its negative knock-on effects.

Bringing parents into the equation is vital. The teachers I regularly talk to go along with that, although some are uneasy about the case of Patricia Amos, the parent who was jailed in Oxfordshire. However, I notice that that liberal organ The Guardian today reports that Ms Amos was visited 71 times in 12 months by social workers who tried to ensure that her daughters went to school. No one can say that an effort was not made to help that woman in those circumstances.

The other issue that I have discussed with teachers—some of them are iffy about this, too—is the consideration of the plans to restrict child benefit to families whose children consistently truant and misbehave. All the teachers I speak to accept that we have to act decisively to address that problem, and I very much share that view.

The Select Committee estimates that 80 per cent. of truants caught in sweeps of shopping centres were accompanied by an adult, often a parent. I congratulate the city centre truancy sweep that took place last October in Leeds, my home city, organised jointly by Education Leeds and the West Yorkshire police force, operating under section 16 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which deals with truants. It was a well-planned and organised sweep that took place over five days. The city centre was swept—figuratively speaking—daily, and a patrol allocated to cover other well-known high-risk truancy areas. During the operation, over five days, 328 children of varying ages from schools throughout the city were stopped. Significantly, the police reported a marked reduction in city centre crime over that week.

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Some of the excuses given by children who were wandering round the city centre were interesting. One claimed that she had a virus, so she should not have been walking around Dortmund square. Another claimed that she had sickness and diarrhoea, so I would not have advised her to walk round the Merrion centre. A third said that he had a hernia, but it did not stop him walking up the hill at Briggate, so he was doing very well. It is not surprising that the top three sites for apprehending truants were in Leeds city centre. In a way, that is a backhanded compliment to the council's work to make the heart of our city a more attractive place to visit.

A study of those statistics yields much useful information. As I said, one glaring fact is that a high proportion of those 328 truants were accompanied by parents or adults. Clearly, we must therefore factor into our equation parents and their attitudes on this subject.

I commend to the Minister yet another initiative being taken in Leeds—the authorised pupils pass scheme. Under the scheme, pupils who use local shops and amenities, or who visit public areas during normal school lesson time, can be asked to show a pass. The pass carries the name of the school and the pupil, and is entitled "Time Out—Authorised Absence Pass". The pass gives details of the pupil's absence from school, including reasons for the absence, the time out and the expected return time to school. The initiative is funded via private sponsorship and has enabled Education Leeds and West Yorkshire police to get the scheme up and running in the south Leeds area. The aim—thanks to new money from the Government—is to expand the scheme to the whole of Leeds. I ask Ministers to monitor and evaluate the scheme and, if it is successful, provide further funding to refine and enhance the project in the years ahead.

No doubt we have all been watching "Coronation Street" over the past few weeks, as Ken Barlow has struggled with a difficult pupil, but the reality in schools is very different. I find myself in total agreement—not that I am after a job—with the Education Secretary's recent comment:

Anybody who has read the university of Warwick study carried out on behalf of the National Union of Teachers entitled "Unacceptable Pupil Behaviour" will realise the debilitating situation that faces too many of our teachers across the country. There is considerable dissatisfaction among classroom teachers about the lack of support that they feel they get from senior management teams when faced with low-level but frequent disruption. Serious incidents, such as violence from pupils and threats from parents were less frequent but highly disturbing to teachers, who felt that they were being blamed in a climate in which parents were unprepared to take responsibility for their children.

As a teacher who was pursued by a large and irate parent who had an even larger dog, I know that discretion is sometimes the better part of valour, and that one should keep out of the way and let somebody else take the responsibility. In many cases, however, the problems were reported as being due to a minority of children who take up a massive amount of teachers' time and effort. It is a minority of pupils who are responsible. It seems to many teachers that there are no effective sanctions in place, and

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that is why I welcome current Government thinking, which I hope will soon be turned into action, on such policies as the withdrawal of child benefit from the parents of severely disruptive pupils. If that debate has done nothing else, it has made people focus on the role of parental responsibility.

Teachers do not go into the job to become experts in crowd control or unarmed combat, but because they want to teach, they want to open up pupils' minds to the opportunities before them, and, in many cases, because they have a love of their subject. To make sure that teachers can teach and pupils can learn in a calm and civilised atmosphere will cost money. We must face up to the fact that the solution will not come cheap. My view is that no classroom teacher should have to put up with violent and threatening pupils. When that situation arises, it places great stress on the teacher and also deprives other pupils of their right to learn. To exclude those who make teaching and learning impossible because of their behaviour must be our aim. As I said, however, that is a costly exercise.

The system in Leeds of learning support units on site at nearly every high school, with properly trained staff, is expensive to maintain, but it is a cost that we recognise we must meet. Those pupils who cannot even be taught in a learning support unit are referred to a pupil referral unit, of which I think there are four in Leeds. I have nothing but admiration for the work that the staff do with some extremely difficult children, and they are worthy of our support. I am glad that the Government support both of those units with excellence in cities money and standards fund money.

As a result of talking to teachers in my constituency, I have a few suggestions for the Minister—at least to match the five proposed by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings—that could help create a more disciplined environment in schools. I hope that they are practical. First, there should be increased funding for and an expansion of pupil referral units so that violent and disruptive pupils can be removed from mainstream schools straight away. Secondly, there should be an enhanced pay and career structure for those who work in pupil referral units with our most difficult pupils—those who do the most difficult job should have the best career and pay structures available.

Thirdly, a framework should be introduced that requires parents to exercise their responsibilities in relation to their children's behaviour in school. That should come at the end of a wide public debate, so that the conclusion reached carries widespread public support. Fourthly, we should make sure that, where possible, all schools have a secure site, that is, for example, effectively fenced. I remember refereeing a football match during which three kids who had hijacked a car drove across the pitch four or five times. Unluckily for me, my school was just about to score a goal. Nevertheless, such incidents—many of which are caused by outsiders wandering on to school premises and creating serious problems—can be addressed fairly simply and effectively.

I have also spoken to teachers—my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) who made this point is no longer in his place—who welcome the presence of the police at school gates at the end of the

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day. That has also had the beneficial effect of lessening shoplifting and other crime-related incidents in the surrounding area at going home time.

Fifthly, increased liaison with the police in schools will help to reinforce the message that we need coherent and joined-up thinking to address all our problems. Sixthly, we should make sure that all senior management teams in schools place the greatest emphasis on supporting teachers in the classroom when it comes to discipline.

Finally, will Ministers consider the effectiveness of a system of staff training in management of unruly pupils? Staff in pupil referral units are trained in a programme called Team Teach, which many teachers consider to be highly effective. If that is judged to be a useful tool for teachers, could we make sure that each secondary school had at least a couple of staff trained in Team Teach so that they could control effectively some fairly aggressive pupils?

The suggestions that I have made are not partisan but I hope that they are practical and effective.

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